In 2007, James Graff wrote a cover story for TIME that looked at the new “great game” developing in the arctic. Global warming is melting the arctic ice cap, opening a scramble for control of a short passage between Asia and Europe. But now a new study has underlined how the new great game may come with a high ecological cost.
Writing in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, a U.S. and Canadian research team found that increasing Arctic ship traffic will bring with it pollution that has the potential to accelerate climate change in the region. And it’s not a greenhouse gas problem—engine exhaust particles could increase local warming by up to 78 percent, the researchers say.
The reason is that the specialist ships needed to traverse the icy arctic waters release large amounts of diesel pollution that includes black carbon, or soot. Tiny particles of carbon absorb sunlight—both directly from the sun, and from the reflection off the surface of snow and ice. That means more warming, and more ice loss.
By looking at the effect of an increase in soot and other particles on a small (5-kilometer-by-5-kilometer) area, the researchers were able to predict that shipping will accelerate climate change in the entire arctic by anywhere from 17%-78%.
The study, titled “Arctic Shipping Emissions Inventories and Future Scenarios,” called on countries to agree on the incorporation of emissions control technologies on arctic vessels such as seawater scrubbers that absorb sulfur dioxide emitted during the burning of diesel fuel.
That may not be forthcoming, however. As Graff wrote back in 2007, the race to control the North has remnants of the fight for control of central Asia 150 years ago—it is difficult to get nations to consider international agreements of any sort once they get the scent of wealth in their nostrils. As Graff wrote, “The current interest in the Arctic is a perfect storm seeded with political opportunism, national pride, military muscle flexing, high energy prices and the arcane exigencies of international law.”
As of now, it’s not even clear who holds the claim to the northern waters. Russia planted a flag on the ocean bed of the north pole in 2007, but the U.S, Canadians, Danes and Norwegians all have competing claims. A Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage through the Arctic Ocean would provide a distance savings of about 25 percent and 50 percent, respectively, with coincident time and fuel savings, according to a press release about the study provided by the University of Delaware. It’s not just shipping at stake—a much cited USGS report from 2000 estimated that the Arctic could contain 25% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves. Such figures underpin the frenzy surrounding the new great game. Environmentalists can only hope the game’s greatest loser won’t be the environment.